Monday, January 30, 2012

One Thousand Gifts

Some excerpts from Ann Voskamp’s lovely book, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to LIVE FULLY Right Where You Are, which my dear friend Karen Murphy Jensen (Murph) gave me.

So then as long as thanks is possible . . . I think this through. As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible. Joy is always possible. Whenever, meaning -- now, wherever, meaning -- here. The holy grail of joy is not in some exotic location or some emotional mountain peak experience. The joy wonder could be here! Here, in the messy, piercing ache of now, joy might be -- unbelievably -- possible! The only place we need see before we die is this place of seeing God, here and now.

Eucharisteo -- thanksgiving -- always precedes the miracle.

“Thanks is what multiples the joy and makes any life large, and I hunger for it.”

Voskamp quotes Erasmus: “A nail driven out by another nail: habit is overcome by habit.” She realizes thankfulness in all things must be learned. “Nails driving out my habit of discontent and driving in my habit of eucharisteo. Because that habit of discontentment can only be driven out by hammering in one iron sharper. The sleek pin of gratitude.”

And learning requires practice. She quotes C.S. Lewis’s advice to a man looking for fullest life: “If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.”

“This is why I had never learned the language of ‘thanks in all things,’” she writes. Though pastors preached it, I still came home and griped on. I had never practiced. Practiced until it became the second nature, the first skin. Practice is the hardest part of learning, and training is the essence of transformation. Practice, practice, practice. Hammer, hammer, hammer.”

Friday, January 27, 2012

Daniel Radcliffe Started It


I never cease to be amazed at the remarks people make about their expectations of religion. I wasn't reading a theology tome, just a throwaway insert that came with the Sunday paper. In adding to tidbits about the "stars", two new recipes for pasta and an interview with the chief character of a minor network sitcom, there was a longer profile about Daniel Radcliffe.

Of course, we all know him from Harry Potter. Many of us have been interested as he moved to the stage in an effort to be perceived as more than a boy wizard with a scarred forehead.

In my paper, he sounded fairly level-headed about what his future might be. It was his remarks on religion that set me to thinking once again about the bad press religion gets in our world.

Child of a Protestant father and a Jewish mother, he was raised in a household "with no faith", as he put it. Radcliffe said, "I have a problem with religion or that it says, 'We have all the answers'... Religion leaves no room for human complexity."

Since he can't defend himself, my challenging Radcliffe is one-sided. However, I do think his view is what many others perceive is the function of religion. And so they dismiss it.

Religion does not have all the answers, but it certainly has the questions! True religion challenges us to the core of our being, asking us to look not for easy outs or pat responses, but rather to take hold of those issues that matter most to us and to ask: what lies behind this question?

I have no real gripe with Daniel Radcliffe. He is young, talented, extremely rich and doesn't yet know where life is taking him. I am willing to wait 40 years to see the interview he might give then, if the same questions are posed.

Maybe all I am trying to say is that God is neither an answer man nor a Santa with a bag of goodies to distribute. If more people would seriously ask who is God, we might not be so willing to equate our churches with places where doubters are not welcome.

Meanwhile, we each need to ask ourselves: what do I expect of religion?

This blog posting appears on the web site of Marble Collegiate Church, where Sr. Carol Perry has been the Resident Bible Scholar for more than three decades.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Road to Mecca

Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Sunday in the Park with George, portrays the artist’s overpowering need for self-expression. I was reminded of his song from that show “Children and Art” when I saw the Broadway premiere of Althol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, which if it were a musical could rename the song “Aging and Art” to sum up its story of a South African woman in a remote village who loses her traditional faith but finds her artistic voice -- and her freedom -- in her declining years.

Gordon Edelstein directs this 1985 work, which is brilliantly acted by Rosemary Harris as Miss Helen, the 70-year-old reclusive sculptor, Carla Gugino (photo, center) as Elsa Barlow, her 31-year-old school teacher friend, Jim Dale as Pastor Marius Byleveld, the elderly country minister who seeks to control Helen’s future. The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production is at the American Air Lines Theatre through March 4.

Set in 1974 in the dusty, remote Karoo of South Africa, the play opens with Elsa’s arrival at Miss Helen’s eclectic cottage, a visual delight with its walls all of different colors and covered in glitter and mirrors that magically reflect the multitude of candles Elsa lights at the end. (Congrats to set designer Michael Yeargan and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski.) Elsa has driven 12 hours straight from her home in Cape Town, concerned over a recent letter from her friend in which Helen expressed suicidal despair.

As it turns out, she will not be the only one checking in on Helen that day. Marius has been pressuring Helen to give up her home and her “hobby,” as he calls her artwork, to move into a church-run senior citizen residence, the Sunshine Home for the Aged. In the 15 years Helen has been a widow, she has not attended church, although she had sat by her husband’s side in worship for years. This distresses Marius, but a religious vision on the night of her husband’s funeral led Helen to her more personal spiritual path.

Helen’s Mecca, which she calls “the only reason I’ve got for being alive,” is in sharp contrast to the conservative values of the church and the community. It consists of large cement and wire figures of camels, pyramids, owls with old motorcar headlights for eyes, and dozens of Wise Men, all pointed East. These creations disgust the villagers, who regard Helen as a mad woman, and frighten their children, but Helen interacts with none of them, content with her own world, which to her is more alive than the human one that surrounds her cottage. (We never see these figures, which we’re told occupy most of Helen’s property.)

“This is the best of me, Elsa,” she says. “This is what I really am. Forget everything else. Nothing, not even my name or my face, is me as much as those Wise Men and their camels traveling to the East, or the light and glitter in this room.”

And so Elsa confronts Marius with the reason she thinks he has for insisting Helen abandon her home and vocation -- because she had never resigned herself “to being the meek, churchgoing little widow you all expected her to be. Instead she did something which small minds and small souls can never forgive . . . she dared to be different! Which does make you right about one thing, Dominee. Those statues out there are monsters. And they are that for the simple reason that they express Helen’s freedom. Yes, I never thought it was a word you would like. I’m sure it ranks as a cardinal sin in these parts. A free woman! God forgive us!”

What repels Marius and the church and village folk is what attracts Elsa.

“She challenges me, Dominee,” she says. “She challenges me into an awareness of myself and my life, of my responsibilities to both that I never had until I met her.”

She felt this the moment she accidentally first encountered Helen’s Mecca.

“One dusty afternoon five years ago, when I came walking down that road hoping for nothing more than to get away from the flies that were driving me mad, I met the first truly free spirit I have ever known.”

But Marius is unconvinced, and believes the sculptures, which he at first thought were just a harmless result of Helen’s loneliness, had become a form of idolatry that replaced her faith.

“I only began to feel uneasy about it all that first Sunday you weren’t in church,” he says. “The moment I stood up there in front of the congregation, I knew your place was empty. But even then, you see, I thought you were sick. After the service I hurried around here, but instead of being in bed there you were outside in the yard making yet another . . . (At a loss for words) I don’t really know what to call them.”

Helen, who has appeared to shrink between the opposing forces of Marius and Elsa, finds her voice, telling Marius that missing church that first Sunday wasn’t something she did lightly.

“You don’t break the habit of a lifetime without realizing that your life will never be the same again. I was already dressed and ready! I had my Bible and hymnbook, I was on the point of leaving this room as I had done every Sunday for as long as I could remember . . . but I knew that if I did, I would never make that owl. . . I think I also knew that if I didn’t, that if I put aside my Bible and hymnbook, took off my hat and changed my dress and went to work . . . Yes! That was my very first owl!”

She tells Marius she had lost her faith long before, and going “obediently” to church with her husband was a lie.

“Do you know what the word ‘God’ looks like when you’ve lost your faith,” she asks. “It looks like a little stone, a cold, round, little stone. ‘Heaven’ is another one, but it’s got an awkward, useless shape, while ‘Hell’ is flat and smooth. All of them -- damnation, grace, salvation -- a handful of stones.”

As we learn, though, Marius is concerned with more than just Helen’s soul. A number of incidents have occurred that make it questionable whether Helen really should be living alone. What is undetermined is who must make the decision for her future -- Marius, Elsa or Helen herself.

I’m surprised The Road to Mecca is only now making it to Broadway. I saw the Off-Broadway premiere in 1988, with Fugard in the role of Marius (he also directed) and the antiapartheid actress Yvonne Bryceland, who was his muse for 23 year, as Miss Helen. Amy Irving played Elsa. I was moved by that production and was once again by the current one. (Bryceland and Fugard reprised their performances for the film of version in 1991, just a few months before her death.)

Fugard turns 80 this year and is currently resident playwright of Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company’s 2012 season. Most of his plays deal with the evils of apartheid in his native South Africa, although that theme is only touched upon in Mecca.

His character of Helen is based on the career of Helen Elizabeth Martins, who lived in the village where Fugard bought a home in 1974. The town folks told him about her sculptures and said she was crazy.

“I obviously couldn’t resist the temptation of strolling in the direction of her house and seeing Miss Helen’s ‘Mecca’ for the first time,” he said in an interview with Theater magazine. “She was still alive at that point but had become virtually a total recluse. So, apart from seeing her in the distance once or twice, and nodding at her when she was among her statues and I happened to be walking past, I never got to know her personally.”

Two years after he moved to the village she committed suicide by drinking lye. Although he had been intrigued by her, he hadn’t felt called to model a character after her until Bryceland pointed out that he had written many marvelous roles for women, but that he had never put two of them together.

“And I suddenly registered for the first time that although I had created an interesting gallery of women’s portraits over the years, I’d never put two women together on a stage as the focus of the whole event.”

While he was considering this, he learned that Miss Helen had developed one close friendship in the last years of her life, with a young woman who was a social worker in Cape Town. That crystalized it for him, although he would take liberties in telling the story; he did not want to create a documentary.

“Because of my respect for Miss Helen the young woman gave me, as a gesture, a little memento of the occasion when we met -- a photograph of herself and Miss Helen,” he said in the magazine interview. “I took one look at the photograph -- it’s a brilliant, beautiful photograph -- and there was the play.”

Monday, January 16, 2012

Friday, January 13, 2012

MIRAGE - The 30th Stage Anniversary Show

In his jubilee year, 2012, the mime actor Carlos Mart�nez looks back over 30 intense years on the stage. His premiere performance as a mime took place in 1982 in a youth club in Barcelona; and his repertoire consisted at that time of six mime pieces.

Today, that young theatre buff has become a master of his profession, someone with whom not only advanced mime students and actors study, but who business managers, teachers and theologians consult in order to understand more fully body language and nonverbal communication. From his initial programme of six mime pieces, Carlos Mart�nez has gone on to produce six full-length shows, has performed in over thirty countries in countless theatres, public halls and even convention centres with several thousand participants. His timeless art that relies entirely on the imagination of the viewer, enchants young and old. His humanity and his humour inspire and reach across all levels of society. Some pieces like "The Bus Stop" or "Creation" have become classics.

Carlos Mart�nez is the laureate of the 2002 prize awarded by the German foundation 'Bibel und Kultur? and his shows have been the 'audience choice? in two theatre festivals in Portugal: Almada in 2004 with 'Hand Made? and TeatroAgosto in 2009 with his programme 'Books without Words?.

Throughout all these years Carlos Mart�nez has remained faithful to his own mime identity: the austerity of black clothing, white gloves and white makeup that turns the actor's face into a neutral canvas on which he can project a range of emotions. He loves the woodcut style, this minimalistic form of expression that does not use any props. His measured movements, simple gestures and facial expression allow him to portray characters rich in nuance; all the while revelling in our human inconsistencies and contradictions. Whereas in the past it took a mere 15 minutes for the mime to apply his makeup, nowadays he takes a full hour to complete the process. However it takes just a few seconds to get rid of it at the end of each programme, in front of his audience, in order to say a few words to them.

The process of applying his makeup is both ritual and mental preparation for the stage. The intimacy of the dressing room, where the mime sits alone in front of the mirror, inspired his book 'From the Dressing Room?, which was initially published in 2009 in German ('Ungeschminkte Weisheiten?), and since, in 2011, in English and Spanish ('Desde el camerino?). Asked about getting older the actor says: 'The art does not get older, however, the artist does. What is interesting is that, the older the actor becomes, the closer he grows to his art. And that in return keeps him young.?

For his 30th stage anniversary Carlos Mart�nez has worked on a new show, 'Mirage?, which he performs in combination with all time audience favourites. Inspired by the discussion around climate change and water shortage, which has always been an issue in his home country of Spain, the programme refers to our most precious and most natural resource: water. And as in previous programs, in 'Mirage? the actor leaves both the interpretation of the images he paints in the spectators' minds and the conclusions they reach, up to the imagination of each person.

As the show begins we see how a man loses his way in the desert. His canteen is almost empty. His cell phone battery is running low and anyway there's no coverage. As his growing thirst and tedium lead to delirium, he begins to see illusive images of water: one mirage after another. The water he has taken for granted, appears to him in the desert as the miracle of turning on the tap, the sound of waves at a beach, a well, a public toilet ... Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. How will he survive?

Without props, wardrobe changes or voice, alone on an empty stage with his white-masked face, the mime faces a desert of his own. With only movements to evoke stories in the imagination of an audience, all mime is mirage, creating life from gesture, life which arises from the pure physicality of dramatic (and comic) events.

Carlos Martinez offers us yet another chance to discover the reflection of our humanity in Mirage!

Mirage opens in Switzerland at the Kulturhalle Gl�rnisch, W�denswil on 14th January 2012 and in Germany at the Kabarett der Galgenstricke, Esslingen on 2nd February 2012.

Carlos Mart�nez is offering his audience this very personal contribution to the many actions taking place during the Water for Life Decade (

The show website:

Born in Asturias, Spain, Carlos Mart�nez moved to Barcelona and put his passion to work by training at the dramatic arts schools, Taller de Mimo y Teatro Contemporaneo and El Timbal. The positive feedback from his first solo performances, in 1982, confirmed his decision to live from the theatre. And because he is not dependent on any translation, he has found an open stage throughout Europe and around the world.

His show Hand Made was the audience choice at the XXI Almada Theatre Festival in Portugal. Programs such as Human Rights have toured extensively including a month-long tour of Switzerland under the sponsorship of Amnesty International. In 2006, Carlos Mart�nez performed at the AI awards ceremony in the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. With Time To Celebrate he celebrated in 2007 his 25th stage anniversary as a mime actor in many European countries.

He teaches master classes for universities and acting schools, such as the Scuola Dimitri (Switzerland), and is a speaker at corporate seminars on the topics of non-verbal communication and body language. Carlos Mart�nez is constantly moving the boundaries of silence in an imaginative world that combines his Mediterranean spirit and humour with precise technique and rhythm.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Winter's chill/God's love

"The part of this earthen plane in which I live is wrapped in winter as this new day dawns for me. The winter earth leans away from the sun, and I miss its light and warmth. How easily I also lean away from you, Beloved God, and your warmth. How readily I lean toward other things and so find the cold touch of winter upon my words and deeds. How often I forget you, who formed my being and who shaped the cosmos, sending spinning suns by the billions into the winter wasteland of empty space.”
-- from Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Carrie Newcomer: Everything Is Everywhere

By Mary Sheeran
I admit that the title of Carrie Newcomer's CD made me wince.  It sounded like something my mother would rant when she came into my bedroom, and on another level, yet another pretentious spiritual statement from some performer. The liner notes brought on more winces: “This album has been a very beautiful journey of music, love and spirituality.” What does that mean? (Everything is everywhere, apparently.) Music is always spiritual, involving breath, body and some mysterious transformable force. It is both mystical and mathematical, of the earth and of the air. So what’s so different about this venture? (I admit to being suspicious of specific music being proclaimed as “spiritual.”)

At first glance, then, the presentation of this CD seems just like so many others purporting to be special. And that’s a shame because there is a lot to admire in this CD once you get past the liner notes and move into the music. 

Newcomer shares music with Indian artists Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan Ali Khan, and Ayaan Ali Khan, with whom she collaborated when, in 2009, she went to India, invited by the American Embassy School of New Delhi to perform and work with students to create works of art based on the concepts of peace and justice.

I’ve listened to not a few such “I’ve gone to India” albums; but Newcomer seems to have done more than just the raga scat here.  She invited the extraordinary Khans, stellar musicians both together and separately, to join her as vocalists and instrumentalists. Amjad Ali Khan is a sixth generation master of the stringed instrument known as the sarod; his colleagues Amaan Ali Khan and Ayaan Ali Khan are seventh generation sarod players, both with solo careers.

The blend of her easy singing and the interpolations by the Khans point to a common origin of the two forms, folk music and Indian classical, a discovery that may well be the essential point of such a collaboration; although it sounds so easy, such work takes considerable effort. Indeed, the album required time on two continents, in India and Indiana.

The first two selections, “Breathe In, Breathe Out” and “Everything Is Everywhere” are dominated by Newcomer’s folk style, her collaborators being more subtle. With “We Were Sleeping,” we enter new territory. The Khans slip into the music with their haunting vocal backgrounds, the sarod mixing with Newcomer’s twangy guitar. Their presence weaves in and out of Newcomer’s simple texts, adding richness and surprise. It’s just what you want it to be, friends talking to each other in music.

Newcomer’s voice is clear and cool, a combination of Grace Kelly and Karen Carpenter, with pretty much one single vocal color. Her voice is the least interesting part of the CD. Not that it’s unpleasant, but it’s just too … nice. Her accompanying acoustic guitar or dulcimer is sensitive to word and music; her real gift lies in composing and in words, and in jazzing up rhythms that welcome east and west. Her words seem simple, but they go beyond the usual folk idioms. For instance, in “Dreaming”: “…In moments clean and clear, the echo bounces back with a lonesome sound down an endless track. We are born to time and light, clay and stone, a fleeting glance, skin and bone. And the world is wrapped in wind, and the fields are filled with dust that collects in rising rings of perfect loneliness.”

She’s not afraid to sit back and be simple, as in “I Believe”: “I believe that there are some debts that we can never repay and I believe there are words we can never unsay…I believe in socks and gloves made out of soft gray wool and…I know I get some things right but mostly I’m a fool…”I believe in jars of jelly put up by careful hands…” Jars of jelly? But that’s beautiful, and Newcomer understands all about caring hands from the sound of it.
The album’s final offering, “Fountain of Love” is the listener’s real reward. The Khans step forward, Newcomer steps back, and they make the most of the blend in a gentle, rhythmic journey, a raga that seems to emerge full blown from the previous offerings.

 All profits from this CD will go to the Interfaith Hunger Initiative, an all volunteer, not-for-profit organization bringing together two dozen faith communities in the Indianapolis area who work together to end child and family hunger. The initiative works to create a system of access to food through pantries in central Indiana and schools in foreign countries, feeding and supporting thousands of children and families. Visit the IHI Web site at
Carrie Newcomer. Everything is Beautiful. Carrie Newcomer: vocals, acoustic guitars, mountain dulcimer. Featuring Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan Ali Khan, and Ayaan Ali Khan: sarod and vocals. Jim Brock: drums and percussion. Steve Mascari: electric and upright bass. Gary Walters: piano, Wurlitzer piano, field organ. Malcolm Dalglish: hammered dulcimer and vocals. Chris Wagoner: violin and viola. Mary Gaines: cello. Krista Detor: vocal harmony. Kat Domingo: vocal harmony.  Produced by Carrie Newcomer and David Weber. 

The official Carrie Newcomer web site:; the official web site for the Khan family is

 Writer/singer Mary Sheeran’s novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet and explores George Balanchine’s relationship with music and making dances.  Her novel, Who Have the Power, explores cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history on the American frontier. She has sung through several operas, oratorios, musicals, recitals, and cabaret shows. Her CD, “Through the Years,” is available from CD Baby.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Three Mo' Tenors in Moscow

Three Mo' Tenors poster in front of the Moscow International House of Music

Blessings for the New Year

I received this New Year's greeting from Dudley Stone, Triangle Theatre Company's artistic director, and want to share it with you:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, "give me a hand that I may tread safely into the unknown." And he said "go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God, that will be to you better than light and safer than a known way."

Quoted by King George VI in his Christmas radio address to the nation after the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939.
"The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul."
-- GK Chesterton